first person narratives

There are fads in storytelling just as there are fads in clothes. A visit to any bookstore makes that clear; if you pick up a dozen new novels in a row a couple of things will ump out at you right away.

First person narratives are very popular just now, and have been for a while. The narrator tells the story to the reader, and thus we live in the narrator’s head and see the story only from the narrator’s limited point of view. I don’t particularly like first person narration, for exactly that reason. I think of it as the Charlotte Brontë approach, or the Reader, I Married Him school. In addition to writing first person narration, Charlotte Brontë was quite nasty about Jane Austen‘s work. Thus my scorn. Sniff. Scowl. (Quotes from Miss B about Miss A in the extended entry below.)

Okay, so I’ll admit there are many excellent first person novels out there. I just can’t think of a single one at this moment.

Now here’s the rub: the one place where first person narration works for me (in a limited way) is in epistolary form. If Character X writes a letter to Character Z, then I get to hear X’s voice, and I learn a lot about the relationship between the two of them. I am very fond of doing this for my own characters. It helps me figure them out in a way nothing else can. If Curiosity sits down to write a letter her voice sounds very clear to me, more so than at any other time. If the character wants to write a letter, I am very pleased to take dictation.

In general I love novels that mix up forms. Third person narration interspersed with letters, newspaper reports and advertisements (there’s another topic to write about here, old newspapers), legal documents. In my own work I don’t often use poetry as I’m not very good at it, though once in a while I have made a small exception.

Possession: A RomanceA.S. (Antonia) Byatt is a superior novelist and she also writes some of the very best literary criticism and analysis. For people interested in thoughtful, intense discussions about storytelling, her collected lectures are really worth reading. Otherwise I love her Possession: A Romance. Byatt is a former academic, and she dissects academia with laser-like precision in this novel. It’s everything in one: a well-plotted mystery, an intriguing love story (times two), an academic satire, a wonderfully done historical, a clear and striking picture of the lot of women (and especially women artists and writers) in Victorian England, and an ode to the poetry of that period. How this book didn’t get onto the lists of the century’s best is beyond me. Stunning prose, and first class storytelling. Possession is a demanding novel, one that has to be read closely and re-read many times to get all the complexities, but it’s so worth it. (I have also listened to it on tape, which was another wonderful experience).

Unfortunately, I can recommend the movie, which was a terrible disappointment.

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Queen of Swords: research

L'Île de LamantinesL’Île de Lamantines

Working on the setting for the first three chapters of the new novel, along with bits of dialog and description and an overall plan. Coming together slowly. When a lot of action is dependent on geography I usually do some close sketches to keep myself oriented as I write. This is the rough sketch for the fictional island in the Antilles that I’ve been working with. It’s called L’Île de Lamantines, or Island of the Manatees (click to expand, but be warned, the full sized graphic is big).

I add to the notes on the sheet as I come across details in my reading. When I’m finally finished with this it will be quite crowded with text.

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writer's block

… that’s the wrong term. There’s a period when the story is coalescing, coming together in strange ways in my head. I think about details and snippets of dialog and ask myself questions: what is it Hannah wants here? why is this character so persistant? what does the air smell like just now?

I keep myself busy with research and reading, reading, reading (a study on the history of the British army called Redcoat just now). Making notes to myself, and losing them and spending an hour looking for the notes and then starting all over anyway. Studying maps. Maps are great for helping the process along (for me personally).

Somebody asked on the discussion board at Yahoo whether or not plot comes first, or how that works. I can only answer for myself, and here it is: yes and no. I have the greater historical framework to pay attention to, and that is a kind of mega-plot I can’t change. Or not much, anyway. From there, it’s a fairly organic process for me. I have an overall knowledge of what’s going to happen (at least, I think I do; sometimes big things change half way through because a character just refuses to go along with what I had planned). While my conscious is busy thinking things through (okay, in this next chapter Jennet will have to…) my subconscious is getting up to tricks, and will spring surprises on me at the oddest moments. While I was writing Into the Wilderness I had no idea that Julian had seduced Kitty until she came around the corner in the middle of the night and ran into Elizabeth. Then it made perfect sense. Julian was a healthy male without female companionship and with a terrible habit of acting out on his worst impulses, what else was he going to do? That’s the way my plots develop: by hook and crook.

Just now the whole fifth book is simmering, and I’m jumpy and will remain jumpy until i get the first chapter nailed down. Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitutude) once said that it takes him forever to write the first sentence, and everything flows once he’s got that down. For me it’s a whole chapter. I have thirty pages written that I will rewrite and rewrite until I’m comfortable that I know the setting and the characters and where they’re headed (at least at first).

If you know Márquez’s work or any of the authors who are known for magical realism, you might notice that I actually lean towards such things myself once in a while, in a small way. Think of Treenie.

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libraries, ode to; Jetta Carleton

As a little girl I would walk two city miles to the public library on Lincoln Avenue on Chicago’s north side, no matter what the weather. I think I checked out every book in the children’s section before I was ten. If the building hadn’t been converted to condos (I should hate this idea, but then I can imagine what a great place that must be to live) I could show you still where certain books sit the the shelves because I checked them out so often: A Wrinkle in Time or Up a Road Slowly or Our Year Began in April.

I have a great respect for libraries and librarians of all kinds. Here in my small town the public library gets almost no public funding, but they provide wonderful services anyway. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we lived for ten years, there was a fantastic public library with every possible service, as well as the university’s top-ranked research library. I was spoiled, then. Now I have to make due with interlibrary loan, the internet, and buying lots of books I would ordinarily check out for a few weeks and take back.

There’s a ranking of public libraries (of course, we love to rank things). Like any ranking it is flawed, but it does establish one thing: In the big city category, the Denver Public Library ranks first. Now, I have nothing against Denver, really, but this seems to me a case of gluttony. Denver already has The Tattered Cover Bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. And it’s got a good university library too. Really. I ask you.

So if you have a good public library, count your blessings. If your public library isn’t quite so wonderful, maybe you could help them out a little, eh? Especially when it comes to public funding.
One other thing, because I ran into this book on my shelf today and whenever I do I want to sit down and read it all over again.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton.

Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint edition (December 1984)
ASIN: 0553244221
sadly out of print

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years. I gave it to my daughter to read this summer. She was doubtful (the cover of this particular edition was particularly awful, I admit) but she read it on my recommendation and we had long talks about it. The really sad thing, she says, is that Jetta Carleton never wrote another novel.

Jetta Carleton’s obituary, from the Albuquerque Journal on December 31, 1999.

JETTA LYON , 86, of Santa Fe died Tuesday following a stroke. She was a writer. Her major work, written under her maiden name, Jetta Carleton, was ‘The Moonflower Vine,’ a novel from her childhood in rural Missouri. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962 and became an immediate best-seller in both hardback and paperback. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Readers Digest Condensed Book Club. She was a graduate of Cottey College and the University of Missouri. She taught school briefly, wrote for radio in Kansas city and for television and advertising in New York. She and her husband lived in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., before building a home in Santa Fe in 1970. They founded The Lightning Tree press in 1973, publishing nearly 100 titles. The Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association honored them in 1991 with its first Rittenhouse Award for lifetime contributions to regional publishing. She was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years, Jene Lyon. She is survived by a sister and grand-nephew in Wichita, Kan. Friends scatter her ashes at her home in the Santa Fe foothills at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Santa Fe Funeral Options.

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